After weeks of waiting for Raw to extend its theater run in Los Angeles, it didn’t disappoint. Beauty, beast and brutality converged in one of the most unforgettable films in recent memory. It’s a very welcome, fresh new take on horror-adjacent films and a unique new approach to storytelling within the genre.
Writer/Director Julia Ducournau’s first full length feature is incredibly impressive, both in its originality and tone. She tells a very dark coming of age story that’s part sibling rivalry, encompassing all the complexity and angst of a young woman transitioning to college. It follows a young wunderkind beginning veterinary school as she starts a terrifying new path of self discovery. The screenplay is very strong and laced with subtle nuance. The dialogue feels very down to Earth and the scenes are crafted with a strong grasp on realism. Seemingly rooted in authenticity and personal experience (at least partially), it does stray from the main point on occasion. It’s a slow burning intensity that eventually rages beyond control, but the journey is mostly unfamiliar for a “horror” film. Overall it works on all the levels it’s trying to hit, especially for a film highlighting cannibalism and using it as a metaphor. Frightening and funny, aggressive and meek. It was a brave and ballsy debut effort and I can’t wait to see what she signs her name to next. She will undoubtedly have producers clamoring to work with her in the near future.
Casting directors Judith Chalier and Christophe Hermans deserve credit for finding Garance Marillier, who had done some short films and a TV movie but had yet to star in her first feature, let alone get the lead role. She brought a subtle physicality to the role of Justine, much of which seems to be inherent in the screenplay. Marillier is a beautiful young woman but it’s everything else she brought to the table that contributed to the star-making performance. So much was required of her throughout the entirety of the film and she exceeded that range brilliantly. Almost all of the film’s success fell on her shoulders because if she wasn’t believable and sympathetic, the rest of the movie doesn’t hold up and it likely doesn’t gain traction through the festival circuit.
Marillier is complemented by Ella Rumpf who plays Alexia, Justine’s sister. She plays the big sister very well, carrying a chip on her shoulder that feels genuine. Viewed by their parents as the problem child, there is a natural rivalry with the younger overachieving sister. As much as they are adversarial at times, at the end of the day they are still family and go through some of the strangest bonding rituals you’ll ever see on film. Rounding out the primary acting trio is Rabah Nait Oufella. He plays Adrien, Justine’s gay dorm roommate, de facto best friend, and study partner. Oufella has the deepest resume of the three actors and utilizes that experience and energy to bring balance to the film. The sisters are so drastically opposite, he serves as the primary voice of reason in a sort of big brother role.
The cinematography by Ruben Impens is fantastic and fits the tone of this film like a glove. His exterior wide shots use the natural lines in the environment brilliantly and point the viewer’s eye where he wants it to go. Much of the camerawork is creatively utilized, creating a definite under-the-covers intimacy…literally. (*Edit: The influence of Brian Tufano’s Trainspotting cinematography can be seen as Impens paid an homage of sorts in a similar scene.) The lighting helps with the mood and benefits the camera work nicely, painting several scenes on a dream-like canvas. Colorful and accented. The close attention to detail is a rare commodity and it’s a welcome alternative to the familiar trappings of big studio productions. Jim Williams’s original score was very well done with a sort of a piercing intensity, really helping to mirror the unease on screen. It’s already hard enough to watch in certain instances, but the score really upped the ante of discomfort. The marriage of sight and sound really played strongly off one another.
The special effects/make-up departments provided a very realistic set of fleshy bits for the graphic scenes, and they are very graphic. This isn’t a zombie movie where tearing and eating flesh are showcased, but it’s the subtlety that makes it work. The attention to detail and the realism make the viewer focus on it, rather than lumping it with a bunch of other gore.
Thinking back, the whole story is a metaphor for change…environmental, personal, physical and mental. There is also an odd bit of numerical harmony as the number 3 serves as a unifying force throughout. There are three things that really unify the film related to storytelling…writing, acting, and cinematography. The story also revolves around three characters. Justine, Alexia and Adrien. Lastly, three relationships undergo serious change…the one she has with her parents, one with her sister and her relationship to (and with) herself.
Recommendation: This one isn’t for the squeamish or the faint of heart. I have a strong stomach and usually handle gore without flinching, but the realism with this one got to me. Not enough to make me sick, but I did squirm a bit and definitely lost my appetite. Keep in mind this is a French film subtitled in English, so that’s too large an undertaking for some. It also has a very comfortable relationship with nudity although it isn’t gratuitous. If you like independent film, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it. It’s the most interesting film I’ve seen so far this year. It’ll probably be a bit hard to find for casual moviegoers, but it’s worth it.